In the Spotlight

Professor Paula Franzese practices civility

Seton Hall Law Professor Paula Franzese Featured in on Civility

Professor Paula Franzese wrote the following as a Guest Columnist for The Star-Ledger:

We are reaching a tipping point moment for our democracy. Intolerance and incivility are manifesting in alarming ways. Virtual mobs rush to judgment and use insult, ridicule and shaming to silence and shun. Cyber sphere venom spills over into physical realms, with incidents of hate crimes on the rise. With so much that is wrong, optimism can seem naïve or even delusional. Except that conditional optimism is neither.

Conditional optimism is different from complacent optimism. Crediting the Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Romer, Harvard professor Steven Pinker describes conditional optimism as the belief that things are far from perfect but they can get better if we do what we can to make them better. Conditional optimism does not make the mistake of confusing small with insignificant. It takes an incremental approach and appreciates that no act of kindness or high-mindedness is ever wasted.

A conditional optimist knows that she can't do everything about the problems in the world and closer to home, but she can do something. Prof. Romer describes it this way: “complacent optimism” is the child wishing for a treehouse and “conditional optimism” is the child who gathers the wood and tools, enlists a few others and makes one.

Reclaiming civility and civic engagement is a bottom-up task. It depends less on what is happening in the White House and more on what is happening in our own homes, schools, workplaces, places of worship, boardrooms, labs and courtrooms. Plato understood that government is the looking glass for the citizenry and vice-versa. A change in the hearts and minds of the populace, for better or worse, is reflected back in its political leadership.

That means that we each have agency and the opportunity, every day to be “influencers,” leading by example with integrity-driven words and actions. We have the choice, with every word, action, reaction, decision, and virtual form of engagement to reject the vitriolic in favor of the more tempered, benevolent and humane. We can decide to give the benefit of the doubt, call in rather than call out and stay mindful of the promise of redemption. Each of us is more than our mistakes.

We can choose to pick our battles wisely, and stay above the fray. Our emotion-mind can mislead us. Anger and rage can be blinding. Better to exercise impulse control, refuse to hit “send” in anger, choose not to place a heavy hand on the car horn and do whatever it takes – a few deep breaths, an extended pause, a walk around the block, a distraction – to allow our reason-based mind to reenter and then direct our actions.

We can return to teaching civics in our schools. I volunteer to do that in my local middle school, and it is one of the most rewarding and hopeful endeavors. Curricular models are available online and not difficult to incorporate into all spheres of engagement.

We can decide to reclaim the promise of community-building, supporting groups and grass-roots organizations committed to harnessing the power of partnership and civic trust. For example, the statewide Citizens Campaign and one of its offshoots, the Newark Civic Trust, led by Harry Pozycki and Joel Rosa, provide tools and collaborative mechanisms for people and groups to effect positive change in their communities.

We can choose to be what we want to see. We can decide every day to inspire with even one kind word or one reassuring text. We cannot do everything but we can do something.

In one of Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan allegories, the elder, chastened and wiser, says to the belligerent young man, “The trouble with you is you think you have time.”

That may be the trouble with all of us. At a time when the future we deliver to our children is at stake, we can decide that we no longer have the time to sit on the fence. We are either collectors of grievances or counters of blessings. We either obstruct any path toward tyranny or clear its way.

We are better than our lesser impulses. We are diverse but in many ways the same. We each want a chance at a better life, to be treated with dignity, to be seen and to have the opportunity to be heard. We believe in the blessings of liberty and hope that the best is yet to be for our mighty nation.

Let’s pick up a hammer and start building that treehouse.

Paula A. Franzese is the Peter W. Rodino Professor of Law at Seton Hall Law School.